Imagine if bumping into someone in the street meant you knew everything they knew. A French team has discovered that when two slime moulds fuse together, they pool their knowledge. This knowledge is then retained by both organisms even if they’re split into two.
It’s only been known for a short while that slime moulds are capable of learning at all. Last year, a team at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse showed that slime moulds can become habituated to bitter but harmless substances such as quinine or salt, learning and remembering that it is safe to cross a bridge coated in these substances to reach a food source. The same team is behind the new research, which studied interactions between these habituated moulds and non-habituated or ‘naive’ moulds.
When two slime moulds meet, they can fuse into one. The scientists found that if a naive and an habituated mould fused, the new mould would also cross a salt-covered bridge with impunity, whereas a mould formed by two naive moulds fusing would hang back. What’s more, if the fused moulds were then separated, the previously naive moulds were still happy to cross the salty bridge. In other words, their habituated former partner had passed on its knowledge during the fused period.
The team is now investigating how this process occurs, and is currently focusing on a ‘vein’ that appears during the fusion stage.